An afternoon in a Japanese food market

I saunter through a narrow alleyway, dodging groups of Osaka locals while anxiously trying to find the perfect Japanese lunch.

The smell of fresh fish mixes with that of fry oil, only to be quickly replaced by the assaulting odor of exhaust as a van speeds through the middle of the crowd, mere inches from hitting me. Everywhere I look, there are delicacies shrouded by oddity: dark red baby octopus on a skewer, giant bamboo shoots in tubs of lukewarm water, blenders filled with a rainbow of fruit juices. It’s a complete sensory overload—the best kind.

This was the scene the Roy Howard Fellows and I found ourselves in yesterday as we perused the fare at Kuromon Market in the heart of the city. Known to locals as the “Gastronome” and “Osaka’s Kitchen,” the market includes wide range of vendors selling anything from green tea Kit Kat bars and boxes of sushi to souvenir stationary and cheap T-shirts. Having only been in Japan for three days prior to our visit, it’s safe to say we were overwhelmed by sheer amount of authentic vibrancy at Kuromon, which we stopped at as part of an informal scavenger hunt in Osaka. But we quickly acclimated and found some delicious, albeit completely foreign, foods to try.

Of everything I’ve eaten on this trip, takoyaki is probably the oddest (save perhaps a noodle sandwich I ate at a convenience store). The dish is essentially made up of little fried balls of dough that have cut-up pieces of octopus in the middle, rendering a texture that can only be described as creamy, crunchy and chewy. It’s honestly pretty tasty considering it looks like a mound of trash-laden hushpuppies, although I could have done without the metric shit ton of fish flakes and bizarre mayonnaise. To top it off, I bought a honeydew smoothie and a green tea mochi, which is essentially a gelatinous ball of sugar with a strawberry in the middle. Both were pretty bomb and reignited my desire to go out and try new things.

But trying strange foods wasn’t the only thing we did at Kuromon. During our first pass through the multi-block market, we encountered an old man hanging out in front of one of the vendors on the outskirts. Clutching a walker and swaying back and forth, he quickly flagged us down by waving his arms wildly, beckoning and pointing at Miesha.

“Beauty,” he said insistently. “Beauty!”

After barraging Miesha with flattery and questions, he proceeded to compliment each of the women in our group, later asking where we were all from. When we told him we were Americans, his eyes lit up, further exposing his overly kind and friendly demeanor. For us, it was a much-needed reaction—unabashed enthusiasm for American tourists isn’t something that’s very common abroad. But apparently the 90-year-old man had been doing that for decades, as he has lived in Kuromon Market since 1924, greeting shoppers with a smile and providing a sense of community for the myriad of vendors that come and go. For them, he’s a constant.

A 90-year-old man has lived in Kuromon Market since 1924.

Up until visiting Kuromon Market, traveling around Japan kind of felt all too familiar—like just another democratic, modernized country with clean drinking water, admirable public education and accessible public transportation. But witnessing the overcrowded alleys and seafood-adorned corners of Osaka’s Kitchen opened our eyes to the traditional underbelly of the country, a cultural identity that can’t be compromised by advances in technology or shifts in political structures—much like a 90-year-old man’s joviality and unshakeable sense of identity.

For the first time, we felt truly far away from home.

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